Seventeen-Mile Drive

Distance: 18-mile lollipop
Elevation gain: 900 ft

This ride is a lot like the Golden Gate Bridge loop—a complete chestnut, over-hyped and tourist-ridden.  Plus it’s all about money (you ride by Pebble Beach Golf Course, for god’s sake)—but, all that aside, it’s an utterly delightful bike ride.  Every time I do it, I wish I could live there so I could do it every day.  You ride by great oceanfront scenery, through lanes of coastal cypresses, do a nice little climb, roll through nearly unpopulated Monterey pine forest, then do a fun, fast descent, all of the best road surface money can buy.   The forty-million-dollar houses (no exaggeration) are actually pretty cool too, if you can forget the socio-political issues.

This isn’t just a scenic tourist stroll—the riding is outstanding.  The road contour on the west side is a delightful rollercoaster—up and down and back and forth—and the inland half of the loop is simply amazing—glassy smooth meandering, then a perfect, fast descent.  You’ll do some work—my computer recorded 1300 ft vert.   The traffic can be a bit noisome, granted, and if you can do the ride before 10 AM so much the better.  Of course you’d like to do the ride at sunset, but that’s when everyone else wants to be there too—the last time I did it at sunset, one parking area had four gigantic motor coaches disgorging tourists.

(To see an interactive version of the map/elevation profile, click on the ride name, upper left, wait for the new map to load, then click on the “full screen” icon, upper right.)

The route is impossible to miss.  Because the locals want to keep you from exploring the neighborhoods, they’ve painted huge, unmissable “17-Mile Drive” signs on the road and posted beautiful wooden route marker posts at all the intersections.   Just follow them.   Start where the Drive takes off from Sunset Drive in Pacific Grove.  Immediately you’ll see a manned gate charging an entrance fee from the cars, but you’re free, so bypass it on the R via a little side road (officially you’re supposed to pay a cyclists’ fee, but no one ever does).  Take an absurdly well-signed R onto Spanish Bay Rd. (not the first R, into a golf course and the Inn at Spanish Bay).  When you hit the water, consider going to your immediate R and explore the rock cairns covering Spanish Bay beach.  Continue L and roll along the ocean, stopping at parking lots for the views, then climb up onto a bluff fronting the sea.  Here the road is lined by grand cypresses and some of the most expensive mansions you’ll ever see.  Feel free to fantasize.

The 17-Mile Drive coastline is justly famous...

The 17-Mile Drive coastline is justly famous…

Just after you pass Pebble Beach Golf Course and ride through the parking lot, you reach an intersection and turn R.  You see a sign reading “Narrow road—cyclists exercise caution,” and you’re in for a few minutes of white-knuckling.  I guess the cars are free to continue their reckless ways.

At the southeast corner of the loop, the road Y’s, with the main road turning right-angle L and beginning an obvious climb away from the water, and the secondary road going R and dropping to a lovely back door into the hamlet of Carmel (see Adding Miles below).  There’s a temptation to turn around here and retrace your steps, since you’re naturally keen to see all that coastal beauty a second time, but don’t—what lies ahead is not to be missed.  Do the substantial (800-ft) climb up to Hwy 68.  Ignoring the R to the exit gate, go L, paralleling 68, then R to cross over 68 as soon as you can.  When you’re on the overpass, all climbing is over.

What follows may be the most perfect 7 miles of cycling you’ll ever ride.  Continue on the main road through a series of intersections all the way back to Spanish Bay Rd.  All the sight-seeing cars leave the Scenic Drive at Carmel or the Hwy 68 gate, and almost no one lives back here, so you’ll have this back side of the loop all to yourself.  You’ll hardly see a car.  It’s mostly level for a while, then a fast, swooping descent on perfect pavement back to near-sea level.

But I prefer the woods

But the inland scenery is just as good

The one place where you might be in doubt as to the route is when you close the loop at Spanish Bay Rd, which you took to get to the shoreline earlier.  An enormous, unmissable sign painted on the road will tell you that the Scenic Drive goes L, down Spanish Bay Rd. toward the ocean.  Well, the loop part of our route does, but you already did that, and if you go down there you’ll find yourself retracing the loop forever.  There are worse fates.  But ignore the sign, go straight, and you’ll retrace the stem of the lollipop and end the ride at the Sunset Drive entrance.

Adding miles: The 17-Mile Drive works its way around the perimeter of a network of residential streets, and you can explore any of them.  The architecture is fascinating everywhere, and there are equestrian stables with rich girls doing dressage and such—it’s a whole world in there you’re only allowed to glimpse.

At the start of our route you’re a short ride along the shore from one of the three best rec bike paths on the West Coast (the other two being Sacramento’s American River Parkway and Eugene’s riverfront trail system): the Monterey Bay Coastal Bike Path, 29 miles of ideal bike strolling that runs from the 17-Mile Drive to Castroville, working its way, always along the water, through the beautiful residential neighborhoods of Pacific Grove, the bustle and charm of the Monterey waterfront, the tourist madness of Cannery Row, past the Aquarium, and finally along the beach dunes north of Monterey.   Once north of Monterey the path is usually empty enough of walkers that you can time trial it if you’re of a mind—during the Sea Otter Festival you’ll always see pros keeping their legs loose there.   The Monterey Aquarium, of course, is a world-class facility well worth an afternoon.  To find the Bike Path from our starting point on the 17-Mile Drive, just ride straight to the ocean and ride north along the water.  If you’re looking for beach, the road north of the Seventeen-Mile Drive through Pacific Grove is much better than the Drive itself, where the shoreline is more rocky and precipitous (and private).

At the southeast corner of the 17-Mile Scenic Drive loop, at the Y, if you go R instead of L, in a quarter mile you reach the back door into Carmel, perhaps the most adorable village in America.  Every house looks like a variation on Hansel and Gretel’s candy house, every restaurant serves good and interesting food, every shop boasts tasteful, unique goods and friendly staff.  You can ride down to the beach via Ocean Avenue, take the simply and appropriately named Scenic Road past the beach bungalows, and eventually work your way to Hwy 1, at which point you’re seven miles from my beloved Robinson Canyon Road ride.  A few miles past Robinson is our East Carmel Valley Road ride.

5 thoughts on “Seventeen-Mile Drive

  1. Jack Rawlins Post author

    A reader asks: I’m intending to stay in Pacific Grove. Any modestly priced cabins? Lowest I’ve seen is $145/night. Any suggestions?

    JR: $145 is about right. I’ve taken to staying in airbnb’s in Marina and that area—a short drive to everywhere but cheap and pleasant. Pacific Grove or Monterey itself has severe restrictions on airbnb.

  2. Brian K Miller

    Scenic Drive is one of the most epic roads in California. Architecture is preferable for me to the Megamansions in the Golf Slum (lol), and that white sand beach curving away towards Big Sur—just epic.

    One house was only $10 Million. When I win the lottery Tuesday night, that will still not be enough. 🙂

    1. Jack Rawlins Post author

      As you’re finishing the loop, there’s a small empty lot on your R that’s for sale. I think it’s only $5 mil. You could build to suit.

  3. Anonymous

    Did this ride early on a Sunday (6:30am) in July 2018. Followed Jay’s directions. Bottom line: it was pretty epic. At that hour only 1 or 2 cars. Not as much distance along the water as I’d have thought (3-4 miles) which makes sense when you think about the loop. The weather was foggy/misty, low 50s! We had been staying inland in Carmel Valley, where it was sunny and 75, quite a change—welcome to Norther Cali coastline in the summer!

    1. admin

      Yes, the shoreline riding can seem surprisingly short on this route. To get more shoreline, start riding near Pt. Pinos Lighthouse and ride Sunset Dr. around to where it runs into the start of our lollipop. The houses are only worth a few million each, but the ocean is just as good.

      Pretty much any ride is car-free at 6:30 AM, which is why I ride then whenever I can.


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